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How Not to do Travel Writing; A Glossary (pt.1) #Dispatch: India Harris

I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.

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India Harris is a 30 year-old Black Lesbian hailing from her mother’s womb in Washington D.C. and currently living in Brooklyn, NY. India works with youth at a religious non-profit in New York City. Her aim is to develop spiritual, socially conscious leaders in and outside of Unitarian Universalism. She cherishes her membership in the Audre Lorde Project, a community organization for LGBTSTGNC people of color in NYC & credits them for developing an intersectional analysis around power, privilege & marginalization. Currently her travels involve learning about the culture, history and lives of people of African descent in each country she visits. Far too often, the contributions/life breath/existence of Indigenous people and people of African descent are erased from the world’s narratives. She’s trying to find an equitable & ethical way to shift resources and access to these communities at home and abroad.

This is the first part in a two-part interview

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Bani Amor: So tell folks who you are and what you do. 

India Harris: My name is India Harris and I’m a Washington DC-born and raised lesbian of African descent currently working for a religious nonprofit in Long Island, NY, but when I’m not working I like to travel in the United States and abroad, mostly for leisure but also for work.

Bani: We came up with the ABCs of fucked up language in travel writing together. Before we get into it, can you share a little on why you think something like this is necessary?

India: Before I went on a backpacking trip in 2013 I went online to do a little bit of research about the countries I would be visiting. I searched for travel blogs by people of color because the majority of blogs that I read were written by white folks from the United States and Europe. They are considered experts by the travel writing industry while the industry simultaneously ignores the voices of people originating from these countries and the impact of tourism on their lives.

Words like ‘authentic,’ ‘exotic,’ ‘g*psy,’ ‘native’ and ‘tribal’ are used in ways that are either exoticizing local people or diminishing their culture. These words are often misappropriated by leisure travelers as monikers or identities to take on which, because of their privilege, is seen as something positive, while nomadic peoples throughout the world face discrimination, systemic violence and have had their lands handed over to settlers. These writings look very similar to the journals/records kept by colonizers otherwise known as ‘explorers’ from the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

shitrichcollegekidssay.tumblr.com
shitrichcollegekidssay.tumblr.com

I think that having these ABCs of f***ed up travel language is important because in most Western nations people would say the rights of the individual, the right to self-determination and the right to sovereignty are vital to a thriving existence, however POC around the world have their human rights violated with impunity, are not allowed self-determination, are not allowed sovereignty. They’re not allowed to narrate their own experiences. Then someone from the outside comes in and projects their own thoughts and norms and biases (informed by white supremacy) on the land, people and culture of which they aren’t a part. Depending on their privilege and access, leisure travelers/travel bloggers are able to have a record of their experiences lifted up through Western media and then that is THE story that is told about a particular place.

Bani: Yes. When I think about decolonizing travel culture with a specific focus on travel writing, and envision what justice in that space would look like, it begins with reclaiming sovereignty over the language used to describe POC, our lands and cultures around the world. So here we go, let’s start with our fav – A for Authentic and Authenticity. Thoughts? 

thetraveltype.com
thetraveltype.com

India: First and foremost authenticity is a social construct. In order for something to be ‘authentic’ it is inherently setting up a standard in which something else will be measured against it. Often, the standard for authenticity for Western travelers is that a place should be the complete opposite of the country that they are from, that it should look something from those outdated primary school textbooks.

Bani: Something out of the white/Western imagination.

India: They will see folks in larger cities in Mexico or Kenya using cell phones and laptops and then say that that is not authentic so then they go to a more remote place, perhaps where the Maasai people are or to Chiapas where there is a large Indigenous population. Yet there is no acknowledgment that in order to remain ‘authentic’ through colonialism the Maasai people and Indigenous people in Chiapas continually face insurmountable violence from the European countries that colonized them. Or even that the tourist gaze is disrupting their way of life and draining ever decreasing resources.

Bani: This sets up what’s wrong with a lot of the words we’ll be discussing – what we recognize as The Standard. White/Western being the default or norm and everything else Othered or Orientalized. The pursuit of ‘authenticity’ is something backpackers preoccupy themselves with a lot, which brings me to B. I bring up backpacking because there is a holier-than-thou thing young white backpackers have against tourists, the traveler vs. tourist thing, which is all very entertaining to me. They’re all tourists.

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India: Yes. This idea that a backpacker wants to set themselves apart from other tourists because they may have an intellectual or humanitarian interest in a given place and are somehow less responsible for the consumerism and inequality enforced by traveler/tourist communities. Yet at the same time engaging in bargaining or price gouging in order to save a buck under the guise of having equal treatment as locals. Yet when you come from a country that is responsible for the economic state of many countries that you travel through, a country that was a former colony of the country that you’re from or simply put, your money is valued higher – it’s not about equity at all.

There are two ways to live in Mexico: like a local, and like a foreigner. The first will see you enjoying the bounties of a low cost of living and an easy pace of life (throw away your watch!), while the latter will see you getting ripped off at every turn, paying three to four times the actual cost of everything, otherwise known as paying the “gringo tax” – Avoiding The Gringo Tax, marginalboundaries.com

Bani: It’s about traveling the cheapest way possible JUST FOR FUN. So this brings us to B for Budget, which usually means cheap for rich people. Everything I’ve read about Budget travel is economically unfeasible for me and pretty much anyone without a well-paying job, no dependants, physical ability and passport privilege. So when I, for example, read travel writing and seek out Budget options, I realize pretty quickly that I’m not being spoken to, that this isn’t for me, my family, friends or community.

India: Different writers have expressed their frustration at the idea of travel being accessible for everyone and money not being an issue because everything is so cheap ‘abroad’ ( i.e. countries in Africa, South America, Asia, the Middle East.) ‘Cheap’ in relation to what? ‘Cheap’ for whom? Yet people are never willing to begin their articles with ‘my target audience is essentially middle class folks from Western nations.’ Instead, they will argue and say that if you believe you can, anything is possible. 

You Don't Have to be a Privileged White Girl to Travel, thisamericangirl.com
You Don’t Have to be a Privileged White Girl to Travel, thisamericangirl.com

Bani: There’s been some talk about POC writing that type of shit. Just say you’re elitist and classist and we can skip the poor shaming.

India: It also highlights that the travel that’s being talked about is for leisure, educational or humanitarian purposes by privileged people from Western nations. It is not talking about how budget or cheap it is for local people to be able to afford groceries or pay their rent or get medical care.

Bani: It’s like the folks who talked shit about Syrian refugees who have cell phones. That leisure travel is the default is bothersome. But where are the resources out there for actual working poor people with families who might want to take a vacation for once?

India: As if refugees could not have been doctors, teachers, nurses or people with any means in the country that they come from.

Bani: Same with poor shaming in the US. Don’t buy that X Box or iPhone or Timbs or you deserve the poverty you’re in. I see this language all over the travel space.

India: They are  resources that most people in the US would say that poor people were not deserving of.  As far as capitalism is concerned in the US if you are struggling economically then it’s your fault and if you are not struggling economically you deserve additional rewards.

Bani: And if you temporarily trade in economic stability for roughing it in poor countries you’re a Life Hacker. Anyway, B is for Best kept secret, which has connotations similar to Columbusing – acting like you discovered shit. See also: off-the-beaten-path and hidden gem. B for Bustling – usually attributed to markets or streets in those ‘overcrowded cities’ i.e. the ‘Third World.’ See also: chaotic/chaos.

In Ecuador, The Frugal Traveler Tries Luxury, nytimes.com

India: What this usually means is that tourists find out about a beach, forest, canyon or sights that locals already knew about, start coming in numbers, and then developers are looking to build resorts and working in conjunction with the government to then begin banning people from the beach and the forests that are near their homes or are in fact their homes.

Bani: Now we’re at C. Similar to main offenders like Authentic and Exotic, the way that we see Cultural or Culture commonly used in travel writing makes me uncomfortable. It’s a term I’ve noticed that gets attributed to my work like a lot…It’s ridiculous.

India: Culture and cultural are usually used interchangeably with the word ‘exotic’ as if people of European descent don’t have culture and wouldn’t be perceived as exotic or different once they went somewhere else. Most are not comfortable with being seen as exotic or different which is why we get back to the idea of being  treated just ‘like a local’ or being seen as a local.

Bani: It’s chasing down this idea of belonging sans struggle. Others revel in it. They want to go somewhere where they’re the first white person to be seen by x person/community and write a book about it. Gross.

India: Which is an affirmation of supremacy. Being seen and treated as the most beautiful, intelligent, skillful, clever, etc. whereas POC are seen and treated as threats who are ignorant and economically dependent in many Western nations.

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Bani: Without caring or thinking about what that experience is like at the other end of the spectrum, with Blackness.

India: Yet globally you will find that people with the darkest skin are treated inhumanely, from being called slaves in Iran to the experience of people of African descent being the majority in Brazil numerically but not having power and being entrenched in poverty.

Bani: I don’t think these folks (and non-Black people in general) understand that that fierce staring happens all over the US, in their own cities and towns. Almost reminds me of Human Zoos. There’s an aspect of voyeurism in tourism that restricts Black presence to either servitude or entertainment. These were the only two ways slaves were able to enter the kingdoms.

India: Exactly. As a POC, one can find that stare in any majority white community in rural, suburban or urban places in the US.

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Bani: C for Colorful – this is often used as a coded term that reminds me of the use of ‘soulful’ to mean anything Black-adjacent by whites/non-Blacks. India and the Caribbean and Latin America (north of Argentina) are all ‘colorful.’ See also: vibrant.

India: That coded language is used to otherize folks the world over – whether in their country of origin or abroad. My last experience in the US in Yosemite National Park was of a white woman walking past me, doing a double take and asking me if I was Hawai’ian. Probably because of my ‘colorful’ skin. Then of course that othering that can lead to policing isn’t included in all of those articles about why POC don’t visit National Parks.

Bani: This. It’s just fucking lazy. So much of travel writing is lazy and racist cause y’all can’t be creative. Like if you engage critical thought in travel writing, it automatically gets labeled as not travel writing.

India: The word creative is a nice segway into our favorite word Curate.

Bani: Take it away, India.

India: My familiarity with the word curate comes from the museum and art world. In order to curate something, you don’t have to actually create that something, you are giving voice to it or creating a narrative around it. You can work with the artist to do this however it is another form of consumption that makes way for large-scale consumption. Giving voice to something makes it an object unable to speak for itself. Travel writing is being used as a medium to objectify people, land and culture.

FanonTourism

Bani: Absolutely. It’s speaking over or speaking for, operating under the notion that people have no will to speak for themselves, bringing us to D for Discover. Must we explain what’s wrong with this?

India: We can always start with the Doctrine of Discovery. Discovery or the act of finding something that you figure no one else knows about even when you find people living there. You find civilization, architecture, music and spirituality yet it isn’t anything like what you would find where you come from so therefore your presence means that this has been ‘discovered’ when it’s been in existence before the written word. The Doctrine of Discovery was used as a justification/confirmation of the God-given right bestowed to Europeans to Colonize land and people across the globe beginning with what is known as the Caribbean (West Indies), South America, Central America, Mexico, the United States and Canada. The Doctrine of Discovery is still used to deny Indigenous people their sovereignty and self-determination in the US.

Bani: I want white travel writers reading this to understand that when they invoke this language they are employing the same logic used to colonize, that what they do when they travel bears resemblance to that colonization in the name of discovery or its close relative exploration. I’m not saying your writing is akin to the slaughter of millions, I’m saying you’re employing the same script that justified (still justifies) those acts, acts that enable you to be a tourist today.

India: Even more so when travelers say they have gone somewhere else to discover themselves. Which is centralizing selfhood in a place that is not your place of origin. I think that folks will have a hard time understanding or seeing their travel writing is akin to anything negative when Christopher Columbus, Pizarro and Cortés are still celebrated throughout Europe and the countries they colonized.

traveloninspiration.com
traveloninspiration.com

Bani: Yes, but those people are not about to read this shit anyway. Yet there are a lot of people who like to think that they’re down yet say, write and do the same shit.

India: I hope they do read it but yes they may not change their minds; that’s the whole idea of not giving up privilege. Why stop doing something you are continuously being rewarded for?

Bani: And it’s not just that word, it’s invoking that history, it’s walking in the footsteps of their ancestors.

India: Walking in the footsteps of their ancestors and constantly denying that they didn’t benefit from the systematic violence that is faced historically and continuously by POC.

Bani: You can’t separate white supremacy from travel writing. Nope.

India: There is no diversity if the stories are being told in the same way but the narrator has a different color skin or is a different gender or has a different sexual orientation.

Bani: Yup, that’s just tokenization wrapped around identity. It’s bullshit. Anyway, let’s do this. E words: Exotic, Ethnic, Explore and Expat. I feel like we covered Explore with Discover.

India: Still for me the difference with explore and discover is that it sounds like you can happen upon something and explore sounds like something more invasive way beyond encounter.

Bani: Like invasion/occupation?

India: I remember reading this story about these two white guys trying to explore a site on Indigenous land in the Southwest US. They specifically acknowledged the site as one of Indigenous resistance through the genocidal violence engineered by settlers. No one but Indigenous people from that particular nation knew about the site and even when these guys tried to get assistance from Indigenous people in order to find it and the Indigenous folks refused, the white dudes went ahead looking for it anyway.

Bani: Of course. Reminds me a of a Spanish dude who made a documentary of him hiring a local guide and searching for an uncontacted tribe in Ecuador! Like what is the point besides basically hunting down the ‘humanity’ of others by further dehumanizing them?11228509_937773979647311_8430381725565608130_n

India: Or not understanding/respecting boundaries.

Bani: Travel is like this race to be the ‘first’ to ‘discover’ ‘explore’ and somehow ‘humanize’ the Other.

India: Humanizing the other without recognizing our impact or the impact of tourism on the environment and on people.

Bani: Having the entitlement to intervene without invitation, consultation or consent. Let’s go to Ethnic. The way this term is usually used is ridiculous, plain and simple.

India: Again the idea of there being a norm and anything outside of that Norm being measured against it, so white culture as the default and anything outside of that is being considered not normal. Everyone has an ethnicity so what makes certain experiences or cultural aspects ethnic and others not?

Bani: There’s whiteness and then there’s everything else. Which brings us to Exotic.

India: Exotic and ethnic are often used interchangeably.

Bani: Sometimes. Though while ethnic is a signifier of identity and is not inherently problematic, exotic is.

India: Even in the dictionary, Exotic is mentioned as something that is not naturalized or acclimatized. Naturalized or acclimatized to what? What is this invisible standard that this imagined foreignness is being measured against?

Bani: We should also mention that the term is almost exclusively gendered in its modern use.

India: Most definitely because a cis heterosexual man is considered the norm.jamaica_woman_0

Bani: The more exotic a woman is, the more fuckable she is. The term  is coded to mean a submissive femininity associated with lighter skin and ‘ambiguous’ racial features.

India: Tourism and marketing are complicit in this. When you see travel ads for Hawai’i or Jamaica or Tahiti it’s usually a woman marketing her goods on behalf of the nation.

Bani: Yes. I recently pitched this as a story, how women’s bodies sell place. Rape and pillage. F is for Foreign. Do readers notice a pattern yet?

India: Especially when a tourist can go to a country and call the people native to that country ‘foreigners.’ No, you would be the foreigner.

Bani: It’s a mindset. This drives home how you can take these words out of the writing but the practice remains the same.

India: The writing is just the documentation of that practice and lifestyle.

Bani: This. Now for every white girl’s favorite word, G*psy. 

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6 Phrases With Surprisingly Racist Origins | Decoded | MTV News

India: The way that I understand the word g*psy is that it’s a slur for the Romani people living in Europe. The Romani are discriminated against and entrenched in poverty.

Bani: The term also has connotations like thievery, laziness, untrustworthiness and unreliability attached to it.

India: I’ve seen articles entitled ‘how to travel like a globetrotting ‘g*psy’ and the g*psies are often displaced or nomadic by choice however I don’t think they are ever referred to as Globetrotters.

Bani: This is ‘cool’ to them.

India: Or ‘how to live like a g*psy without going broke.’ It’s appropriating g*psy which has been used as a slur, not understanding the historical context in which it is used and then identify it with globetrotting which is a leisurely activity. I can’t ever say I’ve seen ‘The Wandering W*tback’ or ‘Nomadic N*gger’ or ‘Traveling Ch*nk.’

Bani: You just said a mouthful. You added Guru to the list; what are your thoughts on it?

India: My understanding of the way that I see people using Guru as an expression to demonstrate that they or someone else is all-knowing. Also another misappropriation similar to ‘griot.’ These terms are being separated from their sociohistorical context. The terms are also used in a way that separate them from the religious value that they have in the communities from which they originated.

Bani: A stripping of history and context. Oh and I want to add a last one – Global Citizen.12065650_890817681009608_8466202809445915161_n

India: I think that global citizen it is really an expression of wanting to connect beyond literal borders but without global accountability or recognizing the power imbalances in your ability to be a global citizen because of access and privilege and another person’s being seen as a global burden.

Bani: It really reminds me of how ‘colorblind’ is used as a faux idealistic term that purposely erases difference. Having unlimited access to other people, lands and cultures. Whiteness itself is a passport.

India: The response to exoticism and making a big deal about difference is to act like difference doesn’t exist at all with common tropes being ‘we’re all human, we’re all the same.’ The thing is those nuances have to be picked up on because that’s where the majority of the world’s people exist – in the nuances. As Gloria Anzaldúa says ‘in the borderlands.’ Real borders with real violent consequences when they’re crossed.

Thanks for reading part 1. Part 2 is coming soon! Tips always appreciated via Paypal.me/BaniAmor

The Exile Narratives of Trans Women of Color #Dispatch: Gabrielle Bellot

I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.

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Gabrielle Bellot is a writer from the Commonwealth of Dominica. Her interests include global literature, trying to define exile, and LGBTQIA identities, particularly in raising the visibility of transgender issues in the Caribbean alongside other LGB issues. She is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, Autostraddle, The Caribbean Review of Books, the blogs of Prairie Schooner and The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. In the past, she has worked as a committee member for Dominica’s Nature Island Literary Festival, an annual event that brings in writers from across the Caribbean and the diaspora for readings, panel discussions, book fairs, and more.

Bani Amor: Can you talk a little about yourself and your work?

Gabrielle Bellot: Sure. Well, to start with, I am a mixed-race transgender woman from the Commonwealth of Dominica. Almost all of my parents’ families live in Dominica, though my grandmother on my mother’s side is from Curacao, and I myself happened to be born in the United States, in Ohio, before returning to Dominica with my parents as a child. Caribbean families can be quite extensive in their national reach, and mine is no exception. I no longer live in Dominica, however. I came out as a queer transwomen in my late 20s–I am now 28–and have not returned to my home out of my fear of receiving a bad reaction due to the unavoidable visibility of my own queerness–the visibility, the physicality, of being trans.

I am a writer, and a lot of the work I have been doing recently involves trying to make transgender issues in the Caribbean, primarily the Anglophone Caribbean, more visible, though my broader interest is in global literature. Although queerness or a kind of non-conformity to gender or sexual norms is difficult to divorce from Caribbean-ness, given that it is difficult to avoid reading queerness into a lot of Caribbean experience, from Carnival costumes to our literature, it is nonetheless something that has been hidden for a long time. Something you do not usually speak of openly, if you want to avoid questions, glares, or worse. And a lot of the discussions in the Caribbean have focused on gay or bisexual men, so I want to make transgender experience more visible, more viable, more unavoidable.

Bani: Have you met a lot of queer and trans Caribbeans since you’ve left Dominica?

Gabrielle: Yes – primarily online, but also in person here and there. Since I came out and began publishing pieces, particularly since I wrote about transitioning in an essay for Guernica in August this year, I have connected with a number of individuals from various parts of the Caribbean who are queer in some way – and I want to clarify, quickly, that I use ‘queer’ here as a shorthand for ‘LGBTQ’ broadly, so I do not distinguish between ‘LGB’ and ‘trans’ individuals unless otherwise specified. Many people wrote to me over social media when I shared something new I’d written.

Some, like a trans woman from Martinique, would not share their name or information out of a radical fear of anyone finding out about their queerness in their island. Others poured out their souls to me, in a way, coming out to me, a stranger, and often telling me that they had been afraid to come out in the islands they had been born in. Some of them, like a young girl from the Bahamas, had been able to be more open about their queerness temporarily when going abroad but had to hide their identity again once they returned to their home.

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Trinidadian trans woman Jowelle de Souza, who Gabrielle talked about in her Guernica and NYT essays

And then I’ve met some queer individuals who have either moved from the Caribbean or who have parents from the Caribbean, most of whom have had reservations about either coming out to their family or friends back home or about travelling to the part of our archipelago they come from or have family in. Of course, some queer individuals can find a happy, healthy life in the Caribbean, and it certainly varies from island to island. But there is undeniably a common thread of nervousness about coming out or returning home, and, while I wish that was not the case, I am happy that my writing has helped at least some people feel a little better, from what they’ve told me, about being open about their identities.

Bani: You touch on exile in every story of yours I’ve read, do you feel like your work fits easily alongside most exile narratives (you’ve read) or nah?

Gabrielle: In some ways, yes. Exile, as a concept, has many rooms, many facets and facades and hidden stairways that seem like they might not lead, at first glance, to where they do. In other words, exile is complicated, and needs to be complicated. People often think of exile in geographic or national terms – the individual or group that has been pushed out of a particular nation by some forces. But you can be in exile while living in the nation, the world you’ve lived in for your entire life, if you feel ostracised within it, if the contours of your identity do not fit with some broader, or even legally cemented, definition of what people from said nation are ‘supposed’ to be like.

The exile can live on the margins of a society or in another society altogether or in a society of no societies. A nation, as Benedict Anderson said, can be thought of as an imagined community – imagined, he said, because it is unlikely we will ever meet all of the citizens in a nation, so for patriotism to work we often have to imagine a kind of false sense of closeness existing between people we have never met. And it is easy to feel exiled when you imagine you do not exist in that imagined community. So many narratives of exile, then, involve a sense of being the Other, of the transnational experience of living on the margins.

To be transgender, and certainly to be a transitioning transwoman of colour, is to always come close to a kind of exile. So many of us have to, at least at first, deal with problems from our families or friends due to our coming out, especially if we live in places where being trans is not something that commonly exists in a national imagination. Trans issues are virtually invisible in too much of the Caribbean, so when I came out to my parents, my mother had to navigate uncharted territory; she had never heard of a transgender person before, could not find any direction on the compass of her senses that pointed to someone like me. As a result, I began to feel distance – exile – from her.

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Freshwater lake in Dominica. Photo by Daryl Durand

At the time I came out, I was already considering never returning home. And it hurt, this additional layer of exile from home, this way that ‘home’ had come to no longer mean something clear if it could no longer reliably mean the home in the mountains I had grown up in. But I had to make a choice. And, for me, it was either to live my life as myself or to buy a passport to the undiscovered country, and I came close to doing the latter, to killing myself. And then there is the struggle of navigating gender when you have not been perceived as a woman but are now not only presenting as one but being perceived by strangers as one.

I learnt how to navigate male harassment on the street, for instance, as well as being talked down to by strangers, and these things have simply become the norm for me – but since most of these people perceive and treat me as if I am a ciswoman, my trans-ness becomes a further layer of distance. Something I fear to reveal. I feel exiled sometimes by my fear that my voice is not the timbre of a ciswoman’s voice, despite my months of voice training on my own. I feel exiled by my fear that I will cause a riot in the women’s restroom one day when some ciswoman finds out, somehow, that I am there, and tells me I do not belong.

I love being me; I am a woman, and I cannot live otherwise, do not want or know how to. But a sense of exile follows me like a shadow.

Bani: Today is TDOR [Trans Day of Remembrance,]; I wonder how it must feel to migrate here as a transwoman of color at the height of all this violence [23 mostly Black transwomen have been killed in the U.S. in 2015, 81 worldwide].

Gabrielle: Yes. It’s a reminder that nowhere is entirely safe for those of us who are trans – particularly those of us who are visible in their trans-ness, unable or unwilling to ‘pass,’ so to speak, as ciswomen. And being queer, broadly, has never been something ‘safe’ to be; safety is always situational, always dependent on a variety of factors. I feel a lot safer and happier in my ability to live openly as a transwoman here in the United States – but I do not, at all, feel safe overall. Tasks that are mundane to many cisgender people sometimes terrify me: going to the grocery store even when I have no food left, making a phone call to a stranger I MUST make. This is because when I am around strangers, I just want, usually, to be seen as any other woman, with no prefix, cis- or trans-, needing to be applied for clarification – but I fear that I may be outed, and being outed can lead to stares, glares, fists, following footsteps, and things that hurt much more.

I often, for instance, get harassed by men when I am by myself, and this harassment, when it leads to you being followed by this man, can be even more frightening when you realise that your outing yourself to him might cause something bad to happen. I once had a taxi driver, who appeared to think I was a ciswoman with a low voice, try to keep me inside his cab before he took me home, telling me he did not want me to leave it and then giving me a card with his number to call. He watched me go into my home, and I remember feeling a sense of terror that he would follow me, that he knew where I lived, this man who had wanted me to stay in his car. 

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Illustration by Micah Bazant: “Drawing this beauty. 22. Beaten and shot in the back, yesterday, on the street, by a whole gang of men. I have no words.”

 

It is often easier to avoid some violence as a transwoman if you ‘pass’ well. You meet less people who wish to hurt you because they ‘read’ you as trans or gender non-conforming at a glance. But passing has its own dangers, too. After all, the men who come up to me to harass or proposition me may react in violence if they find out I am trans because they think I’ve ‘tricked’ them. Because they think of me, suddenly, as a gay male, and here homophobia, misogyny, and transphobia often begin to intersect, forming violence when they do.

So I feel safer here, to be sure. The ability to change my gender marker on my ID in the US has made my life much easier in many situations–buying alcohol, travelling in an airport, being stopped by police, the latter of which is terrifying in of itself already. But violence will follow us as long as anti-queerness and general misogyny do – which is to say that we must always, always be on guard, both as women in general and as transwomen specifically because that prefix, unfortunately, can make a difference in the length of our life’s thread.

Bani: Which stories of exile, if any, did you identify with growing up? And now?

Gabrielle: Growing up in Dominica, I often felt like I had to hide any sign of ‘femininity’ to avoid being called gay, so I identified with narratives of escaping to lonely worlds. I imagined myself on a submarine that travelled the world’s seas like Jules Verne’s Nemo, except I was a girl on a lonely submersible deep below where the blue fades. Sci-fi and fantasy sometimes provided me with a way to imagine myself in another reality, one where I had been born as the woman I knew I was. I still identify with those narratives of distance, so novels like Keri Hulme’s the bone people, which features an asexual woman navigating her own emotional and geographic isolation in New Zealand, resonate with me on some levels. I also understood the feeling of exile in some of Jean Rhys’ novels, some of Earl Lovelace’s books, and in some of Derek Walcott’s poems – a kind of simultaneous racial and national exile, even as these are distinct in each of these writers.

I love being me; I am a woman, and I cannot live otherwise, do not want or know how to. But a sense of exile follows me like a shadow.

In the U. S., I am more likely to be seen as ‘Hispanic,’ broadly, or black, but in Dominica I varied from being ‘white’ to, most commonly, being ‘Shabine’ or a light-skinned mix of ethnicities. Sometimes, this means you feel like you fit in everywhere; other times, it’s like you fit in nowhere. I also enjoyed encountering the exile narratives along both gender and political lines in Nuruddin Farrah’s Maps, the intimate exile in some of Casey Plett’s short stories about trans experience in A Safe Girl to Love, and even just the broader idea of a kind of inexplicable exile in more absurd narratives, like Kobe Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes.

Bani: Do you feel like you have a place or community where you feel belonging? Is it conditional? And have you had folks who know you as mixed and/or trans assume you experience some sort of internal conflict with your identities?

Jean+Rhyslarge
Illustration of Dominican author Jean Rhys (artist unkown)

Gabrielle: I feel like I’m forming a second family–people who you go to when you do not know if you can go to the ones bonded by blood. One of my queer friends told me that coming out means finding a new family when your old family becomes distant, or when your original home becomes a place you may not be able to return to as easily as before. And I think this is true for many LGBTQ individuals – even when coming out goes well, incidentally. I’ve found that being amongst queer individuals in a group makes me feel, suddenly, less different and so much safer at times–like I am suddenly around people who I know will probably understand the language of my experience. It’s a great feeling.

I don’t think it’s the norm for my friends now, but some people have said things to me that make me think they see me as uncertain of either my ethnic or gender identities. I was once asked what race I identify as on an application form in graduate school by a higher-up; I got the sense that anything but Caucasian I said would have been acceptable to that person, that I was a blank canvas to them by my light brown skin. And another person asked me, after I came out, what bathroom I planned to use in my department, a question that implied I might still use a male restroom  -which I never did or will do after coming out – and that seemed to invalidate my gender identity as a woman. I don’t think she realised how demeaning the question came across. People often assume that to be anything other than a simple binary or simple label is to therefore be in conflict with who you are. And I do have conflict with things, but I am more than my conflicts, more than a common narrative of internal fights.

Bani: Damn, I wanna give that last line a standing ovation. So just like with travel media, the white Western gaze of mainstream LGBT (I put this in quotes because they’re really just gay) media tends to paint majority POC countries as broadly intolerant of queer people with little exception, and are usually selectively ahistorical when it comes to where these biases emerge from and how they’re spread. How do you feel about that shit as someone who’s on a lot of sides of that?

Gabrielle: I think there’s a big danger in just giving out single stories, to use Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s term, of places. And this can so easily become a mask for not simply racist generalisations about places, but also for a return to colonialist narratives about countries and continents and regions. A way to speak for instead of speaking to, a way to suggest the way that the benevolent white American is supposed to spend their money – or not spend it by, say, absurd boycotts of countries.

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Image via Queerty.com

For instance, there is a common narrative of certain white Americans suggesting that Jamaica, which has long had a bad reputation for anti-queer attitudes, should be boycotted by tourists as a way to punish the country for these attitudes. This also happened after the Times Magazine published a piece on Belize featuring the painful narrative of a gay Belizean activist, Caleb Orozco; some people suggested that Belize be boycotted as a tourist destination. This happened with my Dominica after an incident with a gay cruise in which two gay white men from the cruise were briefly incarcerated in Dominica after apparently having publicly visible sex while the boat was in the harbour. And I saw at least one person suggest the same, unfortunately, after I wrote my op-ed for the New York Times.

These attitudes are mistaken – boycotting does not help improve LGBTQ people living in the places being boycotted or even those of us in the diaspora. And there is an element, of course, of economic privilege in this decision to boycott, as well as–at times–a kind of single-story racism and a lack of nuance. In my Times piece, I had wanted to be able to provide more nuance about the complex realities of being queer in the Caribbean, since it really does vary, but my op-ed could only hold so many words before its official cut-off point. All the same, I was sad to realise that even a single person had decided to take what I said to mean boycotting a place or even entire region, since I did not advocate that.

When the media paints an entire country or region as being antagonistic to LGBTQ individuals, there may well be large elements of truth in that, but there is also a danger of losing the bigger truth, which is that queer individuals may well live there, may well even thrive there at times. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Individual experience differs. But the old colonialist narratives are easier to tell, and it is sad when the media chooses these broad strokes to brush instead of even suggesting that variance may be the truth instead of a single story–when variance, in all of life, in all the spaces between the silent-loud starfire in our universe, is what describes reality best of all.

I do this series for free; if you wanna tip me – or Gabby – a few bucks, you can do so via Paypal to heyitsbani@gmail.com or click on the Donate button on the left-hand column (and specify if donating to Gabby or get in touch with her directly.)

People of Color with Western Privilege #Dispatch: Pooja Makhijani

I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.

Pooja Makhijani writes children's books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, The Rumpus, Serious Eats, Paste Magazine, Quartz, The Washington Post, Lucky Peach, and The Los Angeles Book Review (forthcoming). Find her online home at poojamakhijani.com.
Pooja Makhijani writes children’s books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, The Rumpus, Serious Eats, Paste Magazine, Quartz, The Washington Post, Lucky Peach, and The Los Angeles Book Review (forthcoming). Find her online home at poojamakhijani.com.

Bani Amor: Tell us where you’re from, where you are now, and how you got from one to the other.

Pooja Makhijani: I’m a South Asian American woman, born in New York City and raised in suburban New Jersey, now living in Singapore. My partner and I moved here in 2010 when he was offered an opportunity in Asia; I continue to write, edit, and teach — my background is in early childhood education and children’s media — here in Singapore.

Bani: Would you consider yourself an expat, or is that term unavailable to people of color?

Pooja: As an American (Westerner), I think, in some instances I may be considered an “expat” in Singapore. And my Western privilege allows me to claim it should I want to. I definitely think the term is less, if at all, available to my friends and colleagues from other Asian countries (Philippines, China, India, etc.). However, I agree, generally, “expat” in the Singapore context is a term reserved for professional white Westerners and professional Japanese and, *maybe*, professional Korean workers in Singapore. That being said, we are not immigrants to Singapore and we intend to return to the United States. I suppose “economic migrant” is the best term for people like us.

Bani: These distinctions always seem implied in media and everyday language. Recently I’ve noticed more journalists writing about the importance of making distinctions, questioning implicit bias or at least agreeing that the current vocabulary to name our place in these migrations is insufficient.

Pooja: Yes! I always remember this exchange between two of my favorite writers. Both Cole and Lalami address exactly these language contortions in their works.*

Bani: I decided a while ago that to be an expat means to hold privilege in the trifecta of class, race and place. Acknowledging that to be POC does not mean there isn’t a racial hierarchy at work with us (obvs).

Pooja: I totally agree! But my “place” — as evidenced by my U.S. passport and accent — gives me such incredible power and proximity to whiteness in a way that I would never have conceived of had I not moved overseas! As I detail in this essay, it has given me tremendous advantages over other people who “look like me” but hold different passports and/or have different accents.

For example, it is very common — and legal — for landlords to advertise empty rental units with the words: “no Indians, no PRCs [People’s Republic of China]”, sometimes followed by the word “sorry”. We have been asked where we were born, where our families live, whether we had an arranged marriage (WTF?), etc. But the minute we were able to produce our passport and to show that he (my partner) held a position in a U.S. company, the micro- and macroagressions ceased and we were able to find a roof over our heads.

I’ve heard story after story from Indian friends from India who are rejected from apartment after apartment, despite their privileged class. Another example: if I walk into a swanky bar/restaurant/retail space, I am sometimes ignored by staff. (I’m a t-shirt/jeans/flats/no makeup/no jewelry kinda gal). But if I put on my best loud, friendly American twang, I received better service. I hadn’t traveled much outside of the U.S. until my mid-20s, and then only to to Europe, so I had no idea of this concept—Western privilege.

“Some arrivals are described as expats; others as immigrants; and some simply as migrants. It depends on social class, country of origin and economic status. It’s strange to hear some people in Hong Kong described as expats, but not others. Anyone with roots in a western country is considered an expat … Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats … It’s a double standard woven into official policy.” Who is an expat, anyway?’ WSJ

I’m also glad that U.S. activists of color, e.g. Son of Baldwin, etc., are finally talking about Western privilege and the interconnectedness of various social justice struggles. It’s weird to go to into a world with “proximity-to-white privilege” when you’ve never been on that side of the fence before!

Bani: Yup, which is why a lot of USian POC can’t conceive of this privilege yet, and often deny that they hold any privilege at all.

Pooja: Yes. Totally.

Bani: But I wanna back it up. In your article you mentioned, you talked about being radicalized and embracing POC community in the age of Bush, and in relocating to Singapore, there was an excitement about moving away from “white systems,” but once you got there, you were like, “Oh.” Something James Baldwin said comes to mind: “I found myself…alchemized into an American the moment I touched French soil.”

Pooja: Yes, that Baldwin quote! I really need to go read him again now that I live overseas! I think USian POC are taught to only think of their struggles in the context of white supremacy in the U.S., which is, in and of itself, problematic because it doesn’t examine U.S. imperialism and our complicity in so much global oppression. It’s good ol’ American Exceptionalism at work, and even progressive folks like me are sometimes so unaware of these entrenched biases. My experiences thus far had led me think that I would only experience “real” discrimination in majority-white settings, and my education had not prompted me to question this provincial world view.

“An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (‘out of’) and patria (‘country, fatherland’).” Wikipedia

Bani: I wonder if you’ve found balance in acknowledging your US privilege but also facing some discrimination for your ethnicity in Singapore.

Pooja: I think about this all the time. I’m not sure. I’m more aware of the ways in which I *can* wield my “power,” but actively choose not to. As I’ve written, people completely shift in their interactions with me when they hear my accent! They are kinder and more obsequious often. I’ve been referred to as “not that kind of Indian.”

Bani: Right. That’s real.

Pooja: Because, again my proximity to whiteness has somehow “civilized” me. Without which, I would be a “savage,” right?

Bani: You and I and the folks you’ve brought up in this talk have all come to acknowledge western privilege only by spending a considerable amount of time outside of white majority or ‘first world’ countries. How do we get others who don’t (can’t) leave to acknowledge this, or is it necessary for them to?

Pooja: Yes, it’s absolutely necessary. How else can we (POC) understand the interconnectedness of various global social justice struggles and find true solidarity against white supremacy? And I think we fail our progressivism if we aren’t willing to point out that we have the *same* power to oppress depending on the circumstance.

My personal challenge is now finding meaningful actions. How do I use this knowledge and power in the service of those without? Writing is all well and good, but I’m an “action” person!

“Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.” Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? The Guardian

Bani: Have you met a lot of other expats (or economic migrants, refugees, immigrants, etc.) of color in Singapore?

Pooja: Yes. Of Singapore’s 5.2 million residents, 3.7 million are Citizens or Permanent Residents (PRs). Non-residents (economic migrants of all classes) are working, studying or living in Singapore on a non-permanent basis. The large number of non-Citizens here has become a huge political issue for a country as small as Singapore. Foreigners are, as they are in other countries, accused of diluting national identity, “taking away jobs,” etc. Local activists continue to be be alarmed by the surge of racism and xenophobia in recent years. The issue is complex, but here is *some* background by a friend. So, in short, yes, I do know lots of foreigners in Singapore, and many Westerners of color. I do know a lot of non-White (I hate that term!) expatriates in Singapore as well.

Bani: Do they share the same politics as you?

Pooja: I suss out people who share my politics, I think. I will say that many of my close USian friends in Singapore are POC. Many of us have had similar experiences. On the flip side, my Chinese American acquaintances benefit from both racial and place-ial privilege in a city like Singapore. Some of them are quite aware of this, especially those who are fluent in Mandarin, for example, but others aren’t.

There was data recently collected – by WSJ, I think – about the races/ethnicities and nationalities of “expats” in Asia. The data concluded that what people generally think of as “expat” – white, male, on a company package, in company housing, with company car – doesn’t hold true as it used to. And that new migrants tend to be younger and either from other countries in Asia and/or Asian Westerners. As the world moves in this way, I think these ideas of Western privilege deeply come into play. And we have to talk about it.

“Want to make friends? Move to another country. Maybe somewhere third world. Expats tend to be adventurous, to be risk-takers. After all, they’ve already left their friends, their homes, their comfort zones and probably most of their possessions in another country to begin a new life abroad. That takes guts. It’s only a certain type of person who’ll do that.” What we could all learn from expats Traveller

Bani: Of the people of color who spend a considerable amount of time outside white majority ‘developed’ countries who acknowledge and question relationships between power and place, they usually come from a place of already having politics that challenge white supremacy. But the majority of poc who travel from these white majority countries for leisure or study or savior tourism or as expats, don’t seem to give a shit.

Pooja: Do you think they revel in their newfound privilege? I seem to think so now.

Bani: There seems to be a kind of aspiration to taste that place privilege for as long as possible, without examining power dynamics in adopted countries. When you talk about Asian Westerners, do you recognize that?

Pooja: Absolutely. And there are definitely people willing to examine those power dynamics, and those who will happily oppress despite knowing.

Bani: I think the latter is enjoying a moment right now. When I do see these nuances in privilege and place addressed with some justice it’s almost exclusively in literature, mostly novels. Even outside the travel space with personal essays and memoir that touch on this, it seems to be very superficial. I was wondering where you go to to see these issues fleshed out.

Pooja: I agree that travel and “expat” media is still centered around whiteness and Westernness, and so far from addressing privilege and place. I like social media—Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook as that is where so many social justice conversations are happening (at least in English)—and try to follow activists who are involved in actions in their parts of the world. I think, as you rightly note above, novelists like Laila Lailami and Teju Cole are addressing some of these issues in their writing. Where do you go, Bani?

[noted white guy whiteguysplains it all:]

“It is much easier for someone from the United States to work or retire in Costa Rica than for someone from Costa Rica to do the same in the United States. But that’s because the US government created this obstacle for Ticos by requiring a visa, which Costa Rica doesn’t require of US citizens. It isn’t an “outdated supremacist ideology” which labels white people living in a foreign country as expats and all others as immigrants; it’s governments. Simple as that.” The difference between expats and immigrants? It’s passports, not race PanAm Post

Bani: This is why I started this conversation series, because I don’t see it addressed, not with this language or analysis in this space or context. Like we’ve both said, social media and literature (and the academy, perhaps) are where these issues are being deeply examined.

Pooja: Even online (in English social media), I find the conversation often centered around U.S.-specific concerns. Global hashtags tend to be U.S.-created; when was the last time you saw U.S. activist POC en masse advocate for a foreign social justice struggle?

Bani: It’s true. So how do we extend the dialogue?

Pooja: For one, we—U.S.ian POC who have this power—need to listen and not dominate the conversation. We tell white people *exactly this* all the time; we need to walk the walk. I’ve seen, online, U.S. POC get defensive and or derail conversations or talk about “intent” when they are called out for their biases, instead of apologizing and sitting with their thoughts. We have to do better.

Bani: Absolutely.

*Tweets used with permission by both Lalami and Cole

I do this for free, if you wanna tip me a few bucks, paypal it to me at heyitsbani@gmail.com or click on the donate button on the left column of the home page

The Revolution Will Go Viral: Kwame Rose, Freddie Gray and the Baltimore Uprising

Hey people, so I injured my knee either swimming, hiking or running alongside vehicles hoping to jump on them in Ecuador last month – on acid – and now I’m watching Fall go by from my bed in Queens, New York, unable to walk. Getting better is the most important thing for me right now, which means working less and earning less when I need it the most. If you wanna support me in any way (besides donating, obvs, which you can do by clicking on the Donate button on the left column or sending cash money to heyitsbani@gmail.com via Paypal) you can share my work with folks you know, collaborate with me, come over with bottles of liquor (a popular option with my friends), lend me books, or send gushing statements of solidarity.

Click on image for full article
Click on image for full article

Anyway, before the fit really hit the shan I was able to profile Black Lives Matter activist Kwame Rose whose confrontation with Geraldo Rivera on Fox News went viral during the Baltimore Uprising earlier this year. If you like it, share it (and credit me!) and follow up with the organizing going on in Baltimore right now, where just last week 16 activists were arrested for demanding a meeting with police commissioner Kevin Davis.

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Next week, my #Dispatch interview with writer Pooja Makhijani on what words like expat, migrant, refugee, exile and immigrant really mean will be up. In the meantimes, you can follow me on the facebook, the twitter, the instagram.

Our Best Revenge: Ecuador’s Feminist Movement & What They’re Up Against

hey folks, I wrote about the feminist movement in Ecuador and Marcha de las Putas, the country’s response to Slut Walk, for Bitch Media:

click on image to read article in full
click on image to read article in full

and in case you missed it, Everywhere All The Time was profiled in Feministing

click on image to read article in full
click on image to read article in full

Next time I post, it’ll probably be from my new temporary home, NYC. If you’re there and wanna network or have a drink or something, get at me.

Bani Amor: Writing Her Own Story

Happy New Year folks! Let’s start it off with this interview Mary Ann Thomas did with me about working in travel writing as a person of mixed identities. Check it:

Bani Amor: Writing Her Own Story

Originally published on Where’s MAT on November 10, 2014

For a long time, I have found it hard to read work by self-proclaimed travel writers whose writing serves to marginalize the people and places where they travel. 10403276_317765235052834_3834583186519449627_n(1)I found myself scouring the internet and bookshelves for reading to inspire me, but just found myself angry. I was first introduced to the work of Quito-based Bani Amor through Daniel, who linked me to her piece entitled Travel Is Not A White Boys Club (And Never Has Been) Dispatch: Moving Black. Bani’s site, titled Everywhere All The Time, showcases her own travel writing as a queer, mestiza, poor traveler. Here, she also showcases conversations with writers of color who share their experiences in ways I had personally never seen before. From the bicyclist, Erick Cedeño, who recently biked from New Orleans to Niagra Falls on the Underground Railroad Route, to Thy Tran, who shines some light onto how food, travel, and power play with each other in the media, Bani is able to access topics that are often swept under the rug in the travel writing world. While she’s extremely busy and on another continent, I got a chance to learn a little about Bani’s world.

Of your work, I am most familiar with Everywhere All The Time. How did this come to be?

8252587137_a04530806d_zIt’s the name I give my blog, zine and social media handles. I was a luddite for a long time, resisting cell phones, laptops and even mp3 players back in the day, so I pushed back against the notion that you had to be uber-connected to be a travel writer. I just wanted a simple website where an editor could see what my work was all about. But I eventually got with it and expanded Everywhere All The Time to become a platform for decolonial travel media, something that doesn’t really exist out there.

How do you describe yourself, to yourself? (Or, what identifiers do you use and why?)

A lot: I’m loud about being queer because cisheteronormative society blows, open about being mestiza because being part indigenous and part Spanish says a lot about my journey as a part of a collective identity, pointed about describing myself as a travel writer because it’s a big fuck you to the powers that be who have been running travel media for centuries that I’m this megamarginalized kid writing my own story instead of letting these tourists do it, and I think that being a poor Latinx from the ghetto connecting to the Earth and making cross-cultural connections with other outliers is pretty radical. You’ll notice that these identities speak to simultaneity and duality. That’s where I belong.

1908363_328905797272111_6194326141509032783_nWhat barriers have you found in promoting POC visibility in the travel writing arena?

Being able to pay the bills. Most editors in travel writing are white and publishing petty fluff and there’s a lot of competition out there so you’ve got to make sure you angle is tight and storytelling skills on point. It’s slim pickings out there for good well-paying outlets that dig more “controversial” and literary shit. Then I see other travel writers of color writing about vacations and I’m like that’s great, you do you, but it feeds back into that colonialist mentality and I don’t want to align myself with that. All writers complain about shitty pay but the gap is wider when you’re female, of color, born in a poor zip code and writing about things we as a culture would rather not discuss.

3637631156_d645a9b928_zWhat have been the most powerful experiences or influences in developing yourself as a travel writer/blogger?

One of the best and most recent experiences that helped me develop as a travel writer was being able to attend VONA/Voices, an annual multi-genre workshop for writers of color held in Berkeley. I got to be a part of the inaugural travel writing class with folks who wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as travel writers; I’ve always held on to the notion that travel writing could be about anything and everything – we all move through places that shape us in myriad ways – and the more expansive and inclusive the genre is, the better.

Who do you ideally surround yourself with?

Artists, immigrants, travelers and queer people of color. There’s a lot of overlap there. I can count my white friends and straight friends on one hand. Other queer artists and travelers of color usually understand my struggle – that big financial one – they understand the otherness, they understand what it’s like to try to live on your art when you’re coming from a poor background. I carry my working-class, immigrant – and to an extant, ghetto – background on my sleeve so if people can get down with that, awesome.